A Fresh Start for Troubled Marriages

At a weekend retreat where couples come for help to heal troubled marriages, leaders Pat and Roger Bate were curious when they met an attending couple who had been divorced for three years. Why had they come to a marriage retreat?

The couple explained that in order to protect their children from the negative effects of their split, they worked out a plan to have a friendly divorce, including monthly family outings. Three years later the couple found themselves alone at the conclusion of a family activity. “You know,” one of them said as they looked at one another across the table, “we have worked harder at making this divorce work than we ever worked at making our marriage work.” With that surprising insight, they attended the retreat, reconciled, and remarried.

When a marriage is in crisis, a sense of hopelessness often propels couples into the divorce court. They see no other answer. Persistent unresolved problems and irritations, poor communication, money problems, accumulated resentments, loss of the feeling of love, addictive behaviors, infidelity, or separation loom so large and cause such hurt that a happy resolution seems impossible.

Dramatic Turnarounds
But many couples (we seldom hear about them) ride the waves of such problems, overcome them, and start over with a brand new marriage. In fact, a study of unhappy marriages headed by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite found that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married considered their marriage to be happy five years later. Significantly, the research team found that the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds—eight out of 10 who remained committed to their marriage were happy five years later.

One of the explanations for these dramatic turnarounds is that “in their pain couples have an opportunity to do something most happy, well-adjusted couples will not have,” says Roger Bate. “And that is the opportunity to make huge, huge gain. Huge growth often comes from pain.”

“And if you work through your problems and come through a tough time together, you’ll have something you and someone else would never have,” say Michelle and Joe Williams, founders of a marriage mentoring program called Reconciling God’s Way.

“If couples have learned to work through issues they never learned to work through before, the marriage can be stronger than ever.”

Dwight Bain, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Family Law Mediator, takes it even further. “I think the couples who truly have let God change their hearts are the happiest people on the planet, because now they have the marriage of their dreams.”

But how do we get there? How do couples rise from the depths of crisis and end up with the marriage of their dreams . . . with the very same person?

A True Story
Penny’s gentle laugh hovers above the table in the small café as she shares an account of her son’s antics at volleyball during a family outing a week earlier. As I listen to her gaiety, I hear a story of celebration, because I know I am hearing a happy ending to a story that could have gone in a very different direction. And although to Penny the problems that took place years ago are now a dim memory, those of us who know their circumstances can find in it some valuable lessons to lead others on the road to marital recovery.

When her husband’s sexual offenses first came to light, Penny was in shock. The scope of it appeared insurmountable. Unable to grasp the reality of her nightmare, Penny called a Christian friend who was divorced but believed strongly in the sanctity of marriage. She encouraged Penny that despite the seriousness of the offense, she and her husband could make it.

“No way,” Penny said.

“Think of the children,” her friend said. “It will be worth it. It’s not easy, but you can do it.”

Still in a fog of pain, Penny spent the rest of the day in prayer, then confronted her husband. He was remorseful, but that did not lessen her hurt and anger.

At the suggestion of Penny’s friend, they met with their minister and listened attentively to his challenging advice and honest assessment. Nick agreed to take his recommended steps for moral and spiritual restoration, and Penny resisted the temptation to be self-righteous. Nick was repentant and despite her anger, Penny looked beneath his offense to try to understand and forgive. “I really had to struggle with self-righteousness,” Penny says looking back. “But I realized it was only through God’s grace that I could forgive Nick.”

Honesty and Humility
With humble attitudes, Penny and Nick each examined themselves, talked honestly and openly about their feelings and weaknesses, and attacked the problems as a team. They got involved in Bible studies together and Nick went to counseling and joined a men’s accountability group. In time their marriage was healed. Today they have a new marriage, a happy, healthy family life, and their children have been unscathed by the crisis that rocked their home years ago.

Marriage and family counselor Roger Shepherd points to honesty and a softening of the hearts as basic ingredients to a renewed relationship. “When both of them are discovering the soft part of their heart and offering that to each other, and if both of them are really gut level honest about what they’re feeling and what’s really going on inside of them, I’ve seen restoration happen every time.”

Dwight Bain adds, “It requires tremendous spiritual change. It requires learning new communication skills and might require individual counseling.” Bain also talks about destructive patterns within a marriage that need to be identified and broken. “If couples don’t aggressively break out of those patterns, they will keep repeating them.”

Commitment to Change
For Michelle and Joe Williams, the reconciliation begins when mates learn to take their focus off their spouse to meet all their needs. “The only way to do that is to completely get their focus on God. If two people are committed to Christ and committed to working on their marriage, their marriage can be saved. But even when only one spouse is willing to change, half the time the marriage can still be saved.”

When Grace’s husband left, God opened her eyes to her own shortcomings through Scripture and Christian books. “The wonderful part of it was,” she says, “as I began to make changes in my attitude and reactions to him, his reactions began to change toward me as well. Our communication had been so poor, but little by little we began to break those habits.”

It took more than two years for Grace and her husband to reconcile, but today their marriage is stronger than ever.

Starting over by creating a new marriage with the same spouse takes work and concentrated effort. But couples don’t have to find the path to wholeness by themselves. In fact, counselors and marriage mentors agree that couples desperately need support from others. Friends, counselors, and ministers can be a life raft. Couple mentoring programs and good Christian books can bring healing.

But most importantly, Christian couples need to take advantage of resources they often forget they have—God’s love that holds them up in the midst of pain, the power of prayer, and the indomitable strength that comes from God alone. Does God want us to know his joy? Yes. However, God’s desire is not that our lives be easy, but that we become strong in him.

“Marriage is a picture of Christ and the church,” Bain says. “The metaphor of husband and wife and weddings appears throughout the New Testament. Marriage certainly is not to be dead; it’s to be vibrant and alive and a picture of God working glorious and wonderful things. It cannot be done without God’s help. The Bible from Genesis to Revelation is a story of God saying, ‘Let’s restore our relationship.’ We should reconcile because it’s God’s heart.”

First appeared in The Lookout, December 31, 2006